Excavation is Wendy Ortiz’s memoir about her “relationship” with Jeff and a portrait of growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley in the 1980s. When Wendy and Jeff started “dating” she was a thirteen-year-old student in the eighth grade; he was her twenty-eight-year-old teacher. I put “dating” and “relationship” in quotes because it is hard for me to think of the five years they spent on and off together as anything other than sexual assault.
Wendy’s parents were alcoholics, especially her mother, or maybe not especially her mother. After her parents separated her father became less involved in Wendy’s life so Wendy’s mother drinking is more visible than her father’s. Another thing that stood out was that her family was very bookish. Wendy describes scenes when her mother would be in one room reading, her father would be in the living room with a sports game on TV but really reading a book more than watching the game, and Wendy would be in her room reading or writing. Writing was a big part of Wendy’s life from a young age. At age thirteen she was already working on a novel. I wonder how much, if at all, her literary outlets are part of what helped Wendy to get out of the relationship and away from Jeff. Through all her years with Jeff, during which there was a fair amount of drinking and drugging by Wendy and the people around her, Wendy kept writing, kept reading, and kept getting good grades in school.
There is a passage early in the book and early in their relationship when Jeff is telling Wendy how smart she is and how he is going to help her get to college. Reading it, it is clear he is trying his best to sweet talk her into bed, but what’s great about that scene is when Wendy thinks to herself, of course I’m going to college. Even at age thirteen she had a strong enough sense of herself and what she was capable of. She never seemed to lose sight of that. One of the things this memoir makes me think of the kids who don’t have a goal like college. I suspect that because Wendy had a talent for writing at a young age and that she expected to go to college, she sort of had a built in way out. Despite what was happening to her, there was a good chance she would get way from Jeff by growing up and going to college. What happens to kids who don’t have that sense of a future, who cannot quite imagine life beyond high school and the neighborhood where they live?
This short memoir left me with a ton of questions, like:
- Before Jeff Wendy was curious about girls and boys. At the end of the book she’s in a committed relationship with a woman and they have a child and I wondered how that came about. I also wonder if in some way her relationship with Jeff an unconscious attempt to force herself into being in a heteronormative relationship even if that is not really how she felt. Put another way, did societal rejection of non-heterosexual relationships (at that time) make her more susceptible to a predator like Jeff?
- How and when did she come to view her relationship with Jeff as abusive? Throughout the book she thinks of him as her lover, boyfriend, and friend – when did that change? Basically I wonder how she got from point A, young girl in a sexual abusive relationship with a much older man, to point B, healthy adult woman in a committed relationship and who has a great career as a writer?
- During her adolescence Wendy’s parents seemed to be largely oblivious to what was going on in their daughter’s life. How did her parents react when they either read her memoir and/or otherwise found out about what happened to their daughter while she was living under their roof? Are they still drinking?
- On the back cover of the copy of the book I read it says Jeff is now a registered sex offender but there is nothing in the book describing how that happened. There’s no mention of Jeff seducing and sleeping with other underage girls but you just know he did.
One of the strongest chapters in the book is when Wendy describes why she didn’t tell. She writes,
“I didn’t want to be average. I didn’t want it to end. I was comfortable keeping secrets. I felt responsible for his acts. I was numb…The truth is I did tell.”
The list goes on and by the end you get a sense of how difficult it is to be in and get out of a situation like this, but also how difficult for outsiders to help.
Excavation is one of those books that kept popping on my radar. I cannot remember where I first heard about it but it seemed to be everywhere so I put in a request at my library and waited for it to arrive. Once it did and I started reading it and never wanted to stop. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one day was because I was exhausted from driving in rain soaked traffic and had to get some sleep. (It doesn’t rain much where I live but now were getting soaked which is good except for the driving part.) I would recommend this to just about everyone. It is a very quick read and draws one in quickly. Wendy’s writing paints a vivid picture of growing up in Los Angeles and growing up generally without sentimentality. She throws in bits about her adult life so you get a glimpse of the woman she has become. I don’t know what else to say except that I was captivated.